I dumped my compost pile today. It is a filthy activity, yet one that is strangely pleasant. Part of the pleasure is being outside. Part is that it is an optimistic activity. I need the compost for my garden, limited as it is. Planting a garden is optimism tempered by delusion. Optimism because I anticipate the fruits of my labor, far off in the future as they will be. History teaches that deer, slugs and any matter of other garden-wrecking vermin are more likely than a bountiful harvest. Several years ago I estimated that each of the cherry tomatoes I harvested likely cost me more than $2 each, not accounting for my labor. Happy in my delusion and bathing in the optimism of Spring, I enjoyed it.
Additionally, I enjoy compost pile archeology. The soil in my gardens was awful when I moved into my house over 25 years ago. I began aggressively composting to generate material to improve the soil. Yard waste, leaves and all manner of kitchen scraps, supplemented a time or two with manure, are churned into usable compost on a two year cycle with a combination of a rotating composter and a stationary bin. Spreading the compost is a trip back in time. I uncover the occasional fragment of lobster claw, the rest consumed by the aggressiveness of the bacterial action. Mussel shells occasionally peak out. The occasional mouse skull, too.
It is a time when the circular economy comes to mind. It comes to mind because of plastic, not because of the circular nature of composting. I am not an industrial composter, but I do actively manage my compost, aerating and providing water. My yearly archeology tells me I do a pretty good job since things like lobster and shrimp shells are consumed. My most common archeological find is plastic. Every shovel full has multiple, brightly colored pieces of plastic peeking out of the rich, dark compost. Most are labels, the vast majority avocado labels, white plastic printed in yellow, blue, red and black. We do love our avocados and the labels are hard to get off the skins. Avocado skins and pits are pretty recalcitrant, yet microbial action has consumed them while leaving the labels pristine. I pulled nearly a hundred labels and other small pieces of plastic from the quarter yard or so of compost I harvested.
We understand past generations through the artifacts they left behind: statues, jewelry and special household items. Considerable labor was put into the making and crafting. Crafting objects meant to last required persistence and craftsmanship. There was nothing that was both durable and cheap.
That is the paradox of plastic; the blessing and the curse of plastic are the same. The blessing of plastic is that it is cheap, easily manufactured and lasts forever, making it a great material for my compost bin. The curse is that it is cheap, easily manufactured and can last forever, which is why my compost has so many plastic items in it.
This year was my first experience with biodegradable cutlery. In the hundred or so pieces of plastic I removed from the compost, I also pulled out some surprisingly complete biodegradable cutlery. It turns out my compost pile isn’t quite the destructive force I imagined. There was some degradation, but forks were still clearly forks and knives still clearly knives. I am not alone in having my composting efforts influenced by biodegradable plastic. Boston is experiencing difficulties.
Commercial composters have issues with compostable cutlery and packaging. Too much of it messes up the composting. Boston restaurants that had shifted to compostable materials are incredulous over the revelation that loads of compostable materials containing too much plastic are being sent to landfills. They are venting their frustration over absorbing higher costs for compostable materials and paying more to have the separated stream hauled away. Ayr Muir, Founder and CEO of Clover, a Boston area chain of restaurants, vented his frustration over compostable material going to landfills. He makes the claim that Clover was the first restaurant to go 100% compostable packaging in 2010. He actually worked with suppliers to develop a suitable lids. Massachusetts enacted an organic waste ban in 2014, forcing all disposing of more than a ton of waste a week to compost rather than landfill. Clover didn’t produce tons of waste, but elected to compost because of Ayr’s determination that it was the right thing to do.
It came with a cost. Compostable cups cost sixteen cents. Traditional plastic only three. Traditional trash bags only a nickel, compostable, a dollar. Clover paid 60% more to have compostable trash hauled that “normal” trash. Muir was aghast to find that he was absorbing higher costs for nothing, learning that his compost hauler deemed the compost too dirty and, rather than composting, simply dropped it in a landfill. The issue is much larger than Clover, affecting greater Boston. Composting is being replaced by anaerobic digestion for disposal of food waste. Conversion to energy is replacing composting and eliminating an outlet for the compostable packaging. Muir guesses that Clover will move from compostable to post-consumer recycled packaging.
I wish him luck with that too. Prices for recycled materials are forcing some recycling centers to close and some recycling programs to falter. It does appear that there are no easy answers.
Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.